MP and culture secretary Maria Miller believes that British culture should be presented as a commodity – a “competing product” to be funded and supported based on economic rather than creative grounds. In the view of the government, art must now make economic sense.
But can music be treated as a product to back based purely on a balance sheet?
The creative process can be fickle and unreliable, often more dependent on inspiration than time, money and effort as in most other sectors. If an easy method existed for producing a consistent stream of purely profitable hits, any musician dreaming of paying their bills if not building a successful career would already be mining it to high heaven. After all, what is the X Factor if not an attempt to turn hit making into an industrialised process?
Unfortunately, for those seeking a fool-proof formula for big money musical success, tastes change and fade over time. Listeners are always seeking a fresh, new sound and once a style becomes the norm it can quickly become stale. Variety is a spice that keeps the musical landscape fertile and interesting.
This musical diversity is often refreshed and topped up by the experimentation that bubbles up from non-commercial underground scenes and grass roots, which help to keep the mainstream buoyant and exciting.
Treating music, culture and the arts as a commodity will restrict creativity and destroy the very value that makes the UK’s cultural industries world class. Our artists’ ability to invent and innovate, often doing so against the commercial status quo of their day, is what has spawned a music industry now valued at over £1.33bn and one of the Britain’s true export success stories. The UK is one of only three countries alongside the USA and Sweden that can boast a musical trade surplus, earning more from its music exports than it spends on imports. With the Swedes a distant third, the UK is the only other nation with a music industry with profits anywhere near proportional to the United States.
With the introduction of profit focused funding initiatives, the ability to take creative risks – the key to British success – is put at risk. Would Adele’s globally best-selling 21 have made it through the bean-counting gauntlet of focus groups and investment analysis or would it have been compromised or rejected as off-trend or lacking in image? How would the Arctic Monkeys have fared if the current suspicions against the wider appeal of provincial bands were turned into the main focus of funding decisions?
The majority of the UK’s best-selling acts today were once mavericks of music’s counter-cultures and sub-genres – that’s where their exotic sounds and groundbreaking impact came from. It’s unlikely that the future equivalents of Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin could thrive in an atmosphere choked by business concerns rather than creative ambition. Everyone has to make money, of course, but taking the risk of devaluing your hugely popular “product” by limiting its life span in search of short-term gains makes little sense.
While the going is good at present, spare a thought for how the next high-profile, high-profit UK stars are supposed to break through when everything has a cost, nothing has a value and creative risks are unacceptable.
Rather than meddle in a process they seem to know little about, politicians should support the UK’s grassroot scene and help working musicians operating beneath the glitz and glam of the music industry’s summit. Create the conditions for the nation’s untapped musical talent to flourish and reap the benefits of nurtured creativity – go with the grain of British music’s success story, rather than against it.
Ultimately, punters will sniff out the more honest, meaningful, unique and exciting music from the background noise of copies and manufactured commodities. The UK government should be supporting musicians to boost this world beating industry to new heights rather than fret over how to tighten their grip and strangle what they already have.
Let musicians make the best, most daring music they possibly can and the rest will follow.